Love and Loneliness in Charlie Kaufman's 'Anomalisa'

The new animated film from director Charlie Kaufman tackles existential dread, loneliness in a world filled with people, and the sameness of human beings.

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Dec 30 2015, 4:29pm

'Anomalisa' poster via Paramount Pictures

There is a scene early in Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa when a character is walking through the Cincinnati airport, all fluorescent lights and buzzing swarms of sweaty strangers looking for luggage or a Nathan's or discounted sunglasses. The man is in town for just a day; he's giving a lecture on customer service techniques. He's middle-aged and British and moderately famous, at least in the context of sport-jacketed men capable of saying "business strategies" and "productivity seminars" out loud without cackling.

His posture is the work of many hours dragging rollable travel accessories behind him, deep-dark circles under his eyes. Eventually he decides he has had enough; he puts in his headphones and for this moment, everything vanishes. There is only music, like it's the first time he has exhaled in four hours. Here, in a way, is what Kaufman is always getting at: the world is out for blood and sometimes you want to pull the ripcord. When you don't have a parachute, you'll settle for .mp3s or the voices in your head.

Anomalisa is Kaufman's first film in seven years. It was funded primarily through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign intended initially to fund a 40-minute short. When the campaign exceeded its financial goal by double, they made the movie twice as long. It is Up in the Air without George Clooney's unflappably triumphant stare or the lolz about inefficiently packed carry-ons. It is Lost in Translation without the shoegaze and Bill Murray's disarming fortune-cookie wisdom and those few scenes that feel like the last night of summer vacation. It is a stop-motion puppet film about existential dread, and a sad man who hates insincerity teaching strangers that the path to prosperity lies in pretending to be happy over the telephone. Life, usually, is a minefield of paradoxes.

The man in the airport is Michael Stone (voiced by Dave Thewlis). Back home is a young son, and a wife he acknowledges the way people water houseplants. It's not so much a marriage as it is a prolonged well-I-guess-if-you-want-to and a collection of cross-country phone calls about the weather as he stares out a window.

In the hotel, Michael rehearses his speech but he hates every word of it. Routine on a small-scale is tedious; on a large-scale you call it a career. He calls down for a meal and the man on the phone recites every ingredient in his salad to make sure it's correct. Kaufman fixates on the empty hyper-attentiveness of everyone and thing in the world, on being barely there, on physical proximity without the intimacy. To feel intensely alone in a world filled with people trying to make half-connections with you. Room service and the concierge, cab drivers with recommendations about region-specific chili and the aquarium, the sterile hotel rooms where everything is arranged just so, every impulse accommodated. Michael returns to his room at one point later in the film and sees the lights dimmed and his slippers lined up on the floor. What is turndown service, really, but someone to help you get into bed without actually being there to kiss you goodnight?

Kaufman has a way of manifesting the demented psychological impulses we have without it feeling like a gimmick.

A little while after arriving, Michael calls an old girlfriend. Her name is Bella and she lives in Cincinnati. She agrees to meet Michael at the hotel bar, in the vaguely defined maybe-a-reconciliation ;) scenario perpetrated by every dude with a weakness for nostalgia and hard liquor. Michael ended things abruptly 11 years ago, we learn. He thinks maybe things have changed but he realizes that they haven't. Bella has questions tonight but he has no answers; she doesn't know what she came for but it wasn't this. She storms out.

Here, also, is something we notice in these scenes: Bella, and everyone else in Michael's world, has the same voice (every character with the exception of Michael's and one other is voiced by Tom Noonan). Their faces are identical, too; bellhops and waiters and his wife, the characters on TV shows. Beige skin smooth as pool table felt, pointy noses, thin lips in perfect horizontal lines; the face attached to the scalp as a separate piece entirely. All of them like this. Their faces look like the Michael Myers mask, or corpses after a mortician has painted on a layer of makeup. Here, on earth, trudging all around us like zombies: dead people made to look alive.

Kaufman has a way of manifesting the demented psychological impulses we have without it feeling like a gimmick. He is making a blatant statement about the sameness of human beings, but the relentlessness of Noonan's voice—a mix of GPS directions and a masseuse asking if that's too much pressure—becomes almost terrifying. Michael's world is a static to navigate through. Everyone is talking and he is incapable of communicating with any of them, like there's a biological disconnect, like their brains have pathways that are not like his. Everyone is in his face, and yet indecipherable, inaccessible, alien.

I think about the way Kaufman assembles these surrealist visuals, the way he sometimes abandons "enjoyment" for the sake of an essential emotional truth. "It's very important to me that the characters are recognizable and identifiable—not likable, I don't care about that, but that there's something presented that is honest in my mind in terms of human interaction," he said in a recent interview with New York. These ridiculous juxtapositions have a purpose beyond the sensational, and I am consumed by them even if I often find his films unsettling.

I think about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Jim Carrey meets Kate Winslet for the first time. Carrey is sketching her on the train. In the sketch, everything is in black and white, there are no other passengers, except for her, colored in. Winslet approaches him; they learn each other's names. Behind them, passing in the window, a blur of gray-brown trees, hard earth, rectangular brick buildings, old houses, power lines. It's winter; it's cold. But occasionally, on the train from one nowhere to another, there is someone you see in vivid detail, someone explosive, someone descended, gift-wrapped, someone with blue hair and an orange sweatshirt the color of a clementine peel. Her name, of course, is actually Clementine. Where does she live? A place called Rockville Center. Does this make any sense? Metaphors with heartbeats? No, not really, except, in that place in your brain wrecked by side glances from that girl, the way she enunciates "bitch" as she leans over the seat, the way she seems both fragile as glass and just as sharp. In that way, it makes all the sense there is.

Michael returns to his room to take a shower after seeing Bella. He gets out and as he's drying off he thinks he hears a voice that is not Tom Noonan's. He dashes into the hallway and bangs on doors till he comes to the room of two women. One is an aggressive blonde. The other is Lisa; she's timid and self-conscious and dresses like your aunt who never got married. She doesn't sound like everyone else. She sounds like Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is entranced by her every action. The three of them end up back in the hotel bar, and then Michael and Lisa end up together back in his room.

Drunk and in love with someone new is looking at the clouds and telling yourself you see something written in them.

Michael is looking for a bulletproof love that doesn't exist. If it feels perfect, you're probably just drunk and naked. Humans are frantic and selfish and twisted, ugly and mean, erratic and whimsical. His wife and kid are back home alone, his ex-girlfriend discarded a second time. He doesn't have much use for anyone. And yet there he is, again, drunk in Cincinnati, Ohio, land of Some Pretty All Right Parking Lots, I Guess, and he meets a girl he's convinced can fix everything. Drunk and in love with someone new is looking at the clouds and telling yourself you see something written in them.

The pivot at the end of the film will knock the wind out of you, and on your way, there is a sex scene between Michael and Lisa as authentic as any I have ever seen. Two people there, in the dim light, sometimes entwined, sometimes on opposite sides of the room, hurtling toward something, desperate and utterly defenseless to this moment's own momentum, Lisa's asymmetrical breasts, the cuff on Michael's shirtsleeve getting stuck on his hand and Lisa helping him figure it out. No one looks sexy trying to take their socks off, and there's no use in trying.

***

There is a scene in Kaufman's Adaptation when Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) is talking to his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage). Charlie wishes he could be as oblivious as he thinks Donald is. Once, years ago, when the two were in high school, Charlie watched Donald flirt with a girl named Sarah. She looked happy, interested. But as Donald walked away, Sarah and a friend started laughing at him. Many years had passed since that day. Decades. Charlie thinks Donald never heard the girls. But Donald did. He kept loving her anyway.

Donald Kaufman: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.

Charlie Kaufman: But she thought you were pathetic.

Donald Kaufman: That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.

Sometimes what we are falling in love with is not this new person, but the way this new person helps us channel a newness in ourselves, to feel resurrected. We want to know the weight of our judgments; the power of every gesture, making direct eye contact, watching her slouch and sigh at one of our lines, proud to know we can shake that person till they see and feel that newness in themselves. Loving's easy. Forever's the hard part. Eventually, most of the voices end up sounding the same.

Anomalisa opens in select theaters December 30.

Follow John Saward on Twitter.

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